A beginner’s guide to Japanese drinking culture
Most new arrivals find there are two sides to Japan: it’s both exciting and unfathomable, both welcoming and confusing. And when you head out of your hostel to enjoy some local nightlife, that feeling often doubles. While the drinking scene is very rarely as formal as Japanese professional life, there are a few customs and regional variations that are worth understanding. The flipside is that locals go hard – so once you’re in the swing of things, you’re guaranteed a great night out. Here are five things you need to know about drinking in Japan…
1. There are no half-measures
The Japanese play hard and stay together until the night is done. If you tag along with them, you will be expected to stick it out to the end of the evening. Keeping up with the drinking is generally the norm, but some people might pass out and sleep while everyone else keeps going. This is normal and preferable to going home early. Rowdiness is fine, encouraged even, but don’t take this as a green flag to be rude.
2. Eating ISN’T cheating
Most Japanese like to drink in an izakaya. These Japanese pubs are more food-focused than the British version, as the Japanese generally like to eat while they drink - see for yourself in a busy yakitori joint on a Friday night. Many bars in Japan are themed and you might find yourself in a Jamaican bar or a computer game themed bar. Karaoke places are very popular, and friends like to get together, drink, let loose and sing sappy J-pop love songs.
3. Beer and whisky rule
Despite a burgeoning micro-brewing scene, most Japanese will stick to big brand beers like Premium Malts or Super Dry, rather than artisanal beers like Hitachino Nest. Older guys will drink whisky or sochu, a medium strength rice alcohol. Contrary to what you might think, sake is not widely drunk, rarely served hot and more likely to be served at a country inn or in an exclusive kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto.
4. There ain’t no party like an Osaka party
From the heated ‘pubs’ of Hokkaido in the far north to the outdoor social scene of Okinawa in the south, Japan’s drinking culture has some surprising regional differences. While Tokyo has everything that you would expect from a big city, the crown for the most exciting drinking culture goes to Osaka. Tag along with a group of laid back Osakans on a bar crawl and hit up some kushi katsu places for beer and fried things on sticks. From there, you could go for more beers and fried takoyaki, then on to the hip bars clubs in Namba district.
5. It’ll hurt your wallet – but not too much
While Japan is not as cheap as other Asian destinations, it isn’t astronomical either. Tokyo is more expensive, with beer costing you between ¥600 and ¥950 in a bar, mixed drinks from ¥1500 to ¥2500. In Osaka, beer is ¥350 to ¥600 and a cocktail ¥700 to ¥1700. Sake will cost you anywhere from ¥750 upwards a cup, while a can of beer in a convenience store is about ¥250. Karaoke is usually about ¥3000 an hour, per person.